Read "Remembering Dorothy Lemelson" by Lemelson Center Director Emeritus Art Molella >>
Born in Perth Amboy, NJ, in 1926, Dorothy Lemelson (née Ginsberg) was the eldest of three sisters. Her father, Louis, was a self-employed glazier, who specialized in store-front construction. Her mother Lena, born in Latvia, served as a bookkeeper for the family business before opening an antique store in 1939, which up until early 2003 was run by Dorothy's sister. Until her death at the age of 104, Lena continued to instill in her daughters, grandchildren, and great grandchildren her pride in being an American citizen, as well as the responsibility of embracing and acting upon that citizenship.
Following her parents' examples of hard work and self-sufficiency, Dorothy channeled her early efforts into earning the money to further her education. After working several small jobs, she enrolled in one of the country's most respected design schools, Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. Upon graduation in 1947, she taught briefly at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts, while establishing herself professionally.
Dorothy began dating Jerry Lemelson in 1953 when they were reintroduced 15 years after their first meeting as children on the Staten Island Ferry. At the age of 12, Dorothy recalls thinking, "I'm going to marry him." And marry him she did, in 1954. Upon returning from their honeymoon, Jerry insisted on a visit to Washington, D.C. so that he could visit the patent office to research patents related to several ideas he was developing. While there, Dorothy overheard a conversation about mechanizing the patent office, which led Jerry to invent a videofile system in which images of documents were stored on magnetic tape. Four years later, Jerry quit his job as an engineer to dedicate 100 percent of his professional time and attention to invention. Their son Eric was born in 1959; Robert was born two years later.
Even while raising the children with Jerome, Dorothy was a successful interior designer and owner of Dorothy Ginsberg Associates in New Jersey. She supported her family financially while her husband worked as an independent inventor from their home. Automated manufacturing systems, barcode readers, automatic teller machines, fax machines, and personal computers, as well as toys such as the flexible racetrack and the crying baby doll, were derived from Jerry's inventions. Jerry Lemelson ranks among the most prolific US patent holders with more than 600 registered patents.
Dorothy and her husband Jerome established the Lemelson Foundation in 1992 with the vision of cultivating future generations of inventors to create a better world. Dorothy was board chair from 1997 to 2018, during which time the Foundation expanded its impact regionally, nationally and globally. The Lemelson Foundation continues to provide catalytic funding to support access to invention education for grades K-16 and bolster invention ecosystems in the US and in low- and middle-income countries that enable inventor entrepreneurs to thrive.
In the 1990s, Dorothy and Jerome also established Venturewell, the Lemelson-MIT program, and the Smithsonian Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. This support funded programs to encourage young people to see invention as a pathway open to them, to pursue careers in entrepreneurship, to promote the United States as an innovation economy, and to foster greater awareness and appreciation of inventors and invention throughout US history.
Dorothy also led and funded the Lemelson Education and Assistance Program (LEAP), which works to improve children's lives primarily through the support of public education. A steadfast believer that the positive, life-long lessons today's students need are the products of inspired teachers and mentors, Dorothy awarded LEAP grants for 75 elementary school teachers to earn master's degrees in literacy education through the University of Nevada, Reno. LEAP's outreach includes scholarships, grants to individual schools, and special programs designed to provide opportunities for at-risk students to thrive and learn.
The recipient of many awards of recognition for her philanthropic efforts, Dorothy was presented with the Order of James Smithson, the Smithsonian Institution's highest honor, celebrating donors who have made transformative contributions to the Institution, on May 5, 2002.
In her former home state of Nevada, she was recognized at the 2001 commencement exercises and awarded the University of Nevada's President's Medal for her contributions to higher education. Additionally, she was named the 2001 Friend of Education by the Reno-Gazette Journal for programs she initiated to benefit the local school districts. Dorothy was inducted into the Nevada Women's Fund Hall of Fame for her exemplary contributions, which continue to benefit the lives of Nevada's women and children. In 2003, she received an honorary fine arts degree from Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon.
Dorothy Lemelson passed away on March 10, 2021.
Remembering Dorothy Lemelson
by Art Molella, Lemelson Center Director Emeritus
It is difficult for me, so soon after her death, to fathom the loss of Dorothy—known to us as Dolly—Lemelson, the guiding spirit of the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for so many years. Nevertheless, I am moved to write, in a personal vein, about what she stood for and meant to me.
My memories begin in 1994 when, out of the blue, Dolly and Jerome—Jerry—Lemelson entered my life with an interest in sponsoring programs at the Smithsonian, starting with the National Museum of American History as the venue for awarding the inaugural $500,000 Lemelson-MIT prize for invention. They invited a proposal, and, after brainstorming with colleagues, I responded with the concept of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. As part of our proposal presentation, we gave them a tour of the museum’s collections. I remember how Dolly’s and Jerry’s eyes lit up when they were shown our archival holdings of the papers of notable American inventors, some of whom they knew personally. I could see they both became excited by the strategy of using history as a way to increase public appreciation of the contributions of inventors like Jerry to American life. A partnership was cemented within the year. Somewhat later I met their sons Eric and Rob, who quickly became full participants in that partnership. Through the Lemelson Foundation, Dolly and her sons continued Jerry’s work after he passed away in 1997.
To me and anyone who knew Dolly well, there were certain attributes that defined the wonderful woman she was. I want to point out just a few among the many that are etched in my own memory.
A Curious Mind
Dolly loved being around inventors, considering their work a supremely creative and humanitarian calling. She made the transformative potential of invention feel personal to all of us at the Lemelson Center. Her values were always on my mind as we developed the Center’s programs, exhibitions, and publications.
One of Dolly’s most impressive attributes was her talent for bringing curious and interesting people together, something I witnessed firsthand during numerous visits to the family estate in Incline village on Lake Tahoe. That was where you would see her among members of her extended family, joined by inventors, many from Jerry’s orbit, along with other creative people from diverse fields. Over time, her magnificent home took on the ambience of a salon, a fertile and friendly atmosphere for the exchange and nurturing of ideas about innovation.
One occasion particularly stands out as illustrative of how such events worked to stir creative imaginations. I was part of a small group Dolly invited to her home for a weekend retreat of sorts, where I had the privilege of meeting and spending quiet time with such legendary innovators as Paul MacCready, pioneer of human-powered flight, and Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse, whose prescient “mother of all demos” in 1968 foretold what would later evolve into the essential functions of the modern personal computer. I learned much about both their inventive and human sides, and recall the lively conversation and exchange of ideas that ensued on a boat ride to a nearby bay and over meals with Dolly presiding. Her very presence made the ideas flow faster and more easily. Often mixing artists, writers, and inventors, other such gatherings at Incline Village ignited the interdisciplinary sparks now deemed vital to robust innovation.
Her home again worked its magic when Dolly graciously agreed to host our 2007 “Lemelson Institute,” an early planning meeting for our Places of Invention exhibition. I found it exhilarating to brainstorm in an environment that itself embodied our exhibit concept. Our meetings convened in the structure Dolly had recently built on the grounds to house Jerry Lemelson’s voluminous archives of invention. Just being in that building, a modernist gem with a stunning vista of the lake, elevated the level of the group’s creativity. The meeting resulted in a report that became the final blueprint for the Places of Invention exhibition.
In July 2015, Dolly celebrated with us at the opening night gala for the Places of Invention exhibition in the newly minted Lemelson Hall of invention in the National Museum of American History—a landmark in the development of the Lemelson Center. This was the last public event I attended with Dolly presiding. As always, she spoke to the gathering quietly and from the heart, without a trace of affectation, and with occasional asides of wry humor accompanied by a quick laugh and a smile. I will greatly miss hearing those opening speeches. That evening I was deeply touched by the announcement that she had committed to endowing an annually-awarded Distinguished Fellowship in my name. Although I transitioned to emeritus status at the Smithsonian almost six years ago, we kept in touch and she has never been far from mind or heart, where she will always remain.
A Caring Heart
Dolly was one of the warmest, most welcoming people I’ve ever known. She was generous and compassionate beyond words. A constant inspiration, she made a difference in the lives of many people and institutions.
To Dolly, compassion was the true mother of invention. This compassion reached far beyond her work into all aspects of her life, touching everyone she encountered. I was immediately struck by how beautifully Dolly and Jerry complemented each other. She matched his deep analytical capacity with her extraordinary aesthetic sensibilities—twin qualities widely recognized as essential to the spirit of humane invention. For us at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center, it was an inspiration.
Her small gestures meant so much to us. She made holiday donations every year in the names of each member of the team to one of her favorite charities, “Smile Train,” an NGO that developed high-tech 3-D videos to train local doctors in poor communities around the world in advanced techniques of cleft surgery. At the Lemelson Foundation, she promoted similar international initiatives and invited us to participate, giving me a heightened awareness of the role of innovation in the developing world in places like Indonesia and Central America.
Dolly was an ever-present support and voice for inclusion. She led by example. She took a particular interest in childhood education in STEM fields. Concerned that girls were too often steered away from technology and invention, she loved seeing girls and boys playing and tinkering in equal numbers in Draper Spark!Lab. She was also a strong supporter of The Discovery, the hands-on science museum (and part of the Spark!Lab Network) in Reno, only a 45-minute drive from Incline Village.
A Discerning Eye
Dolly’s humanitarian impulses were coupled with an extraordinary aesthetic sensibility. My colleagues and I recall the time we asked her help in fine-tuning the plan for our first major exhibition project, Invention at Play, which was entering the final stages of design. She recommended modifying the color palette and aspects of the layout in ways to maximize the attraction for young visitors, for whom she had a particular affection. Her years of experience as an interior designer proved invaluable.
When Jerry wanted to move to the Tahoe area to ski, she went to work designing their house. A showcase of her creative gifts and taste, it was built to her exacting specifications. Dolly loved nature and she engaged a landscape architect to create her Japanese garden, a place of singular beauty conducive to reflection. A labor of love, the whole effect was nothing short of a work of art.
After picking up roots and moving to Portland to be with family, Dolly held forth once again in her lovely apartment in the city’s Pearl District, redesigned by her almost as a microcosm of her former home on Lake Tahoe. Its windows affording a nearly 360-degree panorama of the city, her new residence was impeccably appointed, decorated with paintings and sculptures by several local artists whom she patronized. She also nurtured fledgling artists, such as the young art student I once met there, whose schooling Dolly was sponsoring at Portland State University.
Her circle of family and friends included her beloved Yorkshire Terrier Hobbes, who started co-signing her holiday cards. Attending her 90th birthday party in May 2016, I met many of the same people I had seen with her at Incline Village, who had journeyed from far and wide to attend her milestone birthday. As we renewed acquaintances, I was delighted to note that Dolly’s network was still intact and growing, as vital as ever. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been part of it.
In my sadness over hearing of her passing, I took comfort in knowing that her legacy will live on through the work of the Lemelson Center and with the stewardship of the Lemelson Foundation by her sons Rob and Eric and their families. This was her gift to all of us and to the world.